The Unconference Experience

Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Blog | Comments Off on The Unconference Experience

The Unconference Experience

As a lover of learning, I am most always excited by the idea of trying something new.  You might be thinking, what’s the link between learning and trying something new?  For me they’re related in that I see the chance to try something, to accept that I might not be immediately good at it, to learn from the experience, and to iterate and try again.  Hopefully each time I improve my performance, or at least my enjoyment!


I also love community – the connection to both like-minded individuals meeting for a collective goal, and where there is also diversity of thought, to learn from what others do differently to me, so that I can in turn learn from their perspectives.


Last week there was a perfect bubbling up of an experience that hit both these high notes for me – the L&D Connect Unconference.  An un-what?  An unconference – like a conference, but with some different elements.  Here’s what I took away and really appreciated from the experience:


  • The content was dynamic: One of the features of an unconference is that the agenda is set by the group that is there, at the beginning of the event. Using Open Space methodology, our facilitators led us in an exercise to work out what the group wanted to talk about, that day, so it was relevant to the people who were in the room – and not just an agenda and speaker line-up that had been set months before.  We were also encouraged to move around among the small break-out groups, so that we could cross-pollinate ideas and get a sense of different topics being discussed at the same time.
  • My voice mattered: I have been to conferences and been inspired, motivated, provoked, and puzzled by the presentations and talks. One of the challenges at conferences is how to then engage in a discussion with others about what you’ve heard, how you’ve tried something similar and succeeded or failed, what are others in the space doing that is similar or different.  Often it is in a coffee break or while you’re waiting for the next session that you might talk to the person you’re sitting next to hear their impressions and thoughts (or you might not!).  The unconference format allows an open discussion where everyone can contribute, and we could get questions answered in real time.
  • Learning new things: people who “do learning”, in my experience, are generous, creative, collaborative, and innovative – eager to share what they know….and they know a lot! I got so many cool ideas from the conversations, from the actual way that the unconference day unfolded, from facilitation  techniques to reflective practices. img_1396
  • Risk-taking is worth it: a cool aspect of the day was that while we were having our session in London, there were concurrent sessions happening in Nottingham and Manchester. We used Skype at several points during the day to hear from the different locations and share what was happening in each place.  I imagine that added a degree of complication (will the Skype work, how will we make sure everyone’s timing is synced up?) but it also opened up a whole new sense of shared purpose, collective group spirit.  I was fascinated to hear how different the topics for the day were for one of the other groups – reflecting again the flexibility and dynamism of the content and how we got there.
  • The power of changing the environment: the best aspect of the day for me was when we did a session in the afternoon based on Street Wisdom, the idea that the answers to our challenges are available in the signs and signals of our environment. We had an adapted version but it was extremely powerful in terms of an experience.  I loved it so much I thought it should have its own post here!
  • Affordability: if I could, I’d go to a lot more conferences than I do, but the truth is, most individuals’ and organisations’ budgets aren’t unlimited. This was an event my wallet could handle, and I appreciate the work that the organisers put in to make it happen so that we could all benefit.  Also, through the Twitter feed, people who weren’t there in person, but who were interested in hearing the discussion, could engage in the conversation – which reminds me of the power of social learning and technology to support that goal of opening up access to learning.


Thanks to all the people who made it happen in all the locations, especially Sukh Pabial and Michelle Parry-Slater who led in London, and their team of equally generous and fabulous folks who led in Manchester and Nottingham.    Only question now is, when’s the next one?